Waste & Recycling


The Zero Waste proponents time has come

I highly recommend that anyone interested in waste diversion and information/discussion about leading-edge product stewardship or extended producer responsibility (EPR) issues visit and bookmark the website of an organization called the Product Policy Institute. The website is here:
You’ll want to visit the “resources” area and download some of the interesting documents posted there.
The Product Policy Institute (PPI) is led by Bill Sheehan — formerly of the GrassRoots Recycling Network (www.grrn.org) — a consumer-focused organization. While it still speaks to the “grassroots,” the PPI is a bit more professionalized and its content has more academic bench strength. The website is poised to become a “must visit” resource for anyone interested in environmental protection, waste reduction and sustainable development (i.e., the link between consumer culture, waste generation and the related ecological footprint). The PPI is now, effectively, “Ground Zero” for the Zero Waste movement.
On its home page, the PPI states that it is “addressing the challenge of sustainable production and consumption by seeking out innovative thinkers and experts from business, government, academic and NGO communities to chart a new relationship between government and business in the service of achieving sustainable life styles.”
An interesting mission statement!
It goes on: “The dialogue builds on a core of shared values: that government has a duty to protect public assets (variously called the ‘commons’ and ‘public trust’); that government is needed to define and enforce performance standards in the public interest; but then government should give industry the freedom to do what industry does best — innovate to achieve the desired outcomes.”
I really like this, and find the PPI’s stated goals refreshing and inspiring. The PPI then outlines its Mission, Vision and Strategy:
“Our Mission is to develop and communicate a strong framework for product-focused environmental policies that advance sustainable production and consumption and good governance. Our Vision is a vibrant, sustainable consumer economy in which government takes a leadership role in protecting human and environmental health through policies that reward green businesses providing ‘cradle to cradle’ management of their products.
“Our Strategy is to connect innovative thinkers and diverse stakeholders to develop a big-picture framework for sustainable production and consumption for a North American audience; to provide problem-centered input and solutions to high impact problems in the arena of product production, consumption and disposal; and to communicate policy solutions effectively.”
Having pointed readers in the PPI’s direction, I trust they’ll realize its importance for themselves and get involved.
To that, I’d like to add a few sentiments of my own.
A few years ago — when he was dying from cancer — I asked my friend, environmentalist Gary Gallon, out for lunch. He and I both knew, without stating it, that this might be the last time we saw one another (which it was). The premise of the lunch was an interview for a profile article I would write that eventually appeared as a cover story for HazMat Management magazine. It was unusual for the trade magazine to profile an environmentalist on its cover, but in addition to being my tribute to Gary, it was an excuse to celebrate the evolution of environmentalism and sustainable development into a phenomenon that’s gradually becoming part of corporate culture, not an exterior enemy. In that regard, Gary (who was taken from us at the young age of 54) was a transitional figure, having made the shift from hippy-ish ecologist to environment industry professional. (I got to know Gary well when he rented office space from us in our old magazine digs in downtown Toronto. He was executive director of what is now ONEIA — the Ontario Environment Industry Association.)
At the lunch I asked Gary what advise he had for young people who want to protect the environment. Should they become environmentalists and join groups like GreenPeace (of which Gary was a co-founder)? I asked.
“No,” Gary replied. “In my time we were on the outside throwing stones. Then some of us joined government so we could directly access power and make regulatory changes. [Gary was a policy advisor to former Ontario environment minister Jim Bradley, who introduced far-reaching environmental legislation during his term of office.] But now what’s needed is young people to go into the corporate world and change companies from within.”
Since then I’ve noted that, while there are still GreenPeace-style activists on the outside “throwing stones” (and I believe we need them) there’s another breed of environmentalist that I think represents a more mature phase of the movement — a phase that’s crucial for where we’re headed (or need to head) in any journey to toward sustainability. These environmentalists may not even think of nor describe themselves as such. They’re a sophisticated group of deep thinkers and organizers who are tackling updated challenges, and they include people like Amory Lovins (the Rocky Mountain Institute), Toronto-based Lawrence Solomon of the Urban Renaissance Institute and Zero Waste advocate Helen Spiegelman (of Vancouver, also on the Product Policy Institute board), and Orangeville, Ontario-based Usman Valiante, among others.
People like these offer a refreshing perspective because they’re independent thinkers and have gone beyond traditional adversarial activism that reduces the world into “good” environmentalists and “bad” corporations motiivated by greed. Let’s face it, back in Gary Gallon’s youth (and mine), factory and chemical plant smokestacks and pipes directly spewed untreated toxic wastes directly into the air and waterways. It was the era of leaded gasoline, worry-free smoking, and “living better through electricity.” Although much work remains to be done, the “low hanging fruit” has been picked, in terms of the installation of primary and sometimes secondary treatment equipment at these plants. We’re now at the “industrial ecology” stage, where the energy use, natural resource consumption and environmental impacts of a product over the course of its entire lifecycle have to be examined, and changes made. (These include not producing certain items in the first place.)
Among the many interesting observations and ideas from the “new environmentalists” is that the problem is not the “market” or “capitalism.” They recognize that everything is a “market” and that to oppose markets is like opposing gravity or ocean tides. Instead, they recognize that market forces are neither virtuous or evil, and can be harnessed for all kinds of public and private good. But markets can also have problems that need correction. One of these (maybe the biggest) is subsidies.
The subsidies are, in fact, non-market (or even anti-market) government gifts to companies and sometimes whole industries that may include money (grants, forgiveable loans, etc.) and also what Valiante calls “useful regulatory instruments.” The latter can take many different forms. One example is regulations that on the surface appear to be prohibitions against pollution, but are in fact licenses to pollute within a prescribed limit. Another is exemption from certain regulations, or certificates of approval to build, expand and/or operate a facility granted by politicians against the wishes of local opponents who are dismissed as “NIMBYs.”
A great example of a useful regulatory instrument “purchased” by a powerful industry lobby was the exemption of the soft drink industry in the United States from the anti-trust and combines legislation there, that allowed the major soft drink companies to dismantle the established bottle refilling and deposit-refund system and replace it with a system of one-way “throwaway” beverage containers. The companies at the time even managed to convince most U.S. lawmakers (though not all) that their special exemption was for the greater cause of environmental protection (to protect their bottle refilling system) when it was in fact the very opposite. Insidiously, the companies managed to corrupt and control the agenda — by partially funding the startup of curbside collection programs — and re-branding their throwaway packaging “recyclable” to the extent that policymakers are now reduced to negotiating whether used beverage containers should be collected for recycling on deposit, or not, which neatly sidesteps the larger and more important debate of whether the recyclabe/throwaway containers should be allowed in the first place. The companies avoid mention of the high-speed super-efficient refilling systems in places like Germany where most soft drinks are sold (by the very same companies) in refillable containers. In other words, the 3Rs hierarchy has been overturned, and not by accident.
Corporate representatives nowadays sit on the boards of various Industry Funding Organizations (IFOs) that formulate strategies and oversee the development of various emerging product stewardship programs. It’s not their fault at all that they participate in the IFOs — in most cases they’re legally required to do so. And there’s nothing nefarious in the fact that they (rationally and predictably) pursue policies that reflect their commercial interests.
The problem is that, time and again, governments allow and even encourage the development of programs that give the appearance of being environmentally progressive when, in fact, they are simplistic programs that stick an advance disposal fee onto a consumer item and allow “business as usual” for producers and consumers. True, the product stewardship programs (if properly designed and independently audited) may succeed in diverting certain wastes from landfill disposal. That may be desireable but is really the “right answer to the wrong question.” Zero Waste proponents like the folks at the Product Policy Institute would likely say that the better question is “what is the most eco-efficient product and packaging, over a product’s entire lifecycle.” Ask that question and you start generating EPR answers that include design for environment (DfE), and not simply waste diversion solutions.
From this perspective, the entire Blue Box curbside recycling system is the right answer to the wrong question. In fact, it represents a mostly “business as usual” scenario for producers, who continue to externalize their costs onto the environment, and ratepayers. One of the PPI’s central ideas is that municipalities have been duped in the past half century into becoming “enablers” to co-dependent industry, carting off an ever-increasing tide of “product waste” at no cost to industry. These days, more and more of the items (which increasingly include short lifespan electronic products like computers, MP3 players and cellphones that are obsolete almost from the moment they’re sold) contribute to a growing amount of waste. there’s no “feedback loop” connecting upstream manufacturers to the upstream and downstream environmental impacts of their products and wastes. End the subsidies (at each stage of production, and the carting away of wastes), the Zero Waste proponents will argue, and much of that feedback loop will come into effect.
Let’s assume that in the next few years the stated goal of governments across North America will be reached. Let’s imagine that something like 60 per cent (or higher) of our “garbage” is “diverted from landfill.” Let’s imagine that about a third of the total waste stream is recycled through Blue Box-style programs, and another third is composted through various organics “Green Bin” programs. Let’s also imagine that a considerable amount of products are kept out of the waste stream entirely via various product stewardship programs. One day, there will be a program for scrap tires, used oil, household hazardous waste (batteries, pesticides, etc.), fluorescent bulbs, used electronics (“e-waste”), and so on. Oh happy day! But, what will we have acheived?
Only a small part of what the Zero Waste proponents argue we need. While it’s true that recycling offsets the upstream energy inputs and environmental externalities of natural resource extraction, this is only a small part of what’s required for sustainability — the business of getting us to the place where everyone on this planet can live a reasonably comfortable life without the five planets that would be required if everyone lived as Americans (and Canadians) do. With the growth of consumerism and markets in China and India, we need to worry about this, urgently.
Curbside recycling and product stewardship programs are desirable for certain materials, to be sure, and they are important tools in our sustainability toolbox. But using them while ignoring the 3Rs hierarchy (reduction, reuse) is like a carpenter attempting to build a house with only the screw driver and rasp, and not also using the hammer, saw and pliers (etc.). So, even as the municipal-industrial dream of a content covered in recyclng and composting plants comes to fruition in the next decade or so, we will still need more landfills and waste-to-energy plants (and probably another two or three Earths!) unless the producer responsibility and true product stewardship issues are addressed, and that will require nothing less than fundamental changes in the consumer society.
A few years ago I would have doubted this kind of change was possible. My suspicion now, however, is that a “sleeping giant” is wakening, and a grassroots movement of people concerned about climate change, peak oil, and ecosystems under stress from numerous factors, will gather momentum. It will not be led by corporations, although some progressive companies will get onside (and see some commercial benefits from doing so). It will not be led by municipalities, that will continue to struggle with the tide of waste coming at them, and continue to be preoccupied with building their recycling and composting mini-empires.
It will be led (I think) by a collection of different groups bound by a common interest. Chief among these will be aging Baby Boomers — a “grey power” army of modern “village elders” who will increasingly have both the time and the interest in bringing social change, now that the most consumerist phase of their lives is over (families, larger houses, cars, etc.). They will join with the new generation of idealistic and concerned young people growing up with entrenched environmental values and, let’s face it, $100 (and higher) per barrel gasoline. The catalyst will be the intellectuals and organizers of the updated environmental movement, personafied by the board of the Product Policy Institute and similar organizations, who will develop new models and fresh insights into how to change the system and harness market forces for various public and environmental goods. Their ideas wille eventually overtake the simply “waste diversion” philosophy and its technologies. The companies that position themselves at the forefront of this emerging trend will prosper; those that ignore it will slowly fade. Things are changing, and the Zero Waste proponents time has come.

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